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Monday, August 11, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (and a quick look at the success of Marvel Studios 10 movies in)

Judging by international box office reports, every person on earth has seen this already and have already formed their own opinions. Still, there was no way that I wasn't going to throw in my two cents, so here's my own take on what is easily the most unexpected Marvel hit of them all.

Proving that the Marvel brand is all but indestructible, Guardians of the Galaxy made, in the U.S. alone, a whopping 94 million dollars on its opening weekend. Think about that for a moment. This isn't a film based on a well known comics property, nor is it one that has as its star an A-grade action hero or an even remotely commercial director at its helm. Instead - and all of its marketing has reflected this - it's an unabashedly bonkers space adventure with some seriously quirky anti-heroes at its centre, coated in several layers of cheese, a day-glo colour pallet and a gleefully now-obscure 1970s pop soundtrack. It's the kind of formula that makes Joss Whedon's brilliant but commercially disastrous Serenity look like a sure thing but it's a formula on which Marvel has staked their Next Big Thing. And yet, would ya know it, it has paid off in spades. Marvel has somehow turned something that by all rights shouldn't even exist into box office gold and a critical hit.

Now, sure, some of this obviously has to do with the endless onslaught of trailers, posters and TV spots that the studio bombarded us with in the months leading up to its release but, less cynically, Guardians is the ultimate proof that the folks at Marvel studios simply know exactly what they're doing.

I hate to keep bringing this up because a) I am actually a DC kid at heart, b) am far too old for all that Marvel vs. DC nonsense and c) I mostly read Image Comics's incredible stable of creator owned comics these days, but Guardians of the Galaxy is a textbook case of why Marvel have become so much better at cinematic adaptations of their properties than their Distinguished Competition - certainly once you take Batman out of the equation. And, yes, I'm fully aware that Man of Steel did gangbusters at the box office, but that doesn't take away what a joyless, turgid mess of a film it was and one that, crucially, failed to understand what it is that makes it's titular hero great.    

Marvel, you see, make films that embrace their source material, rather than be embarrassed by it. Marvel don't just make superhero movies, they make comic book movies - movies that perfectly reflect just why these decades-old properties have survived as long as they have; confirming once and for all that us comics geeks were onto something all this time. They have traditionally not gone for exclusively big name actors and have constantly surprised with their choice of directors.

On the latter point, this year alone, Marvel's big hitter, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was directed by a a pair of brothers best known for their work on killer American sitcoms like Community and Arrested Development and starred a leading man who, up to just a few years ago, was mostly known for smaller parts in badly received (Fantastic Four, The Losers) or largely ignored (Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, The Losers) comic book movies. But, of course, Winter Soldier was a smash hit that made bajillions at the box office, while pleasing both fans and critics alike, almost without exception.

And now we have Guardians of the Galaxy. Continuing Marvel's tendency to think out of the box with their choice in directors, they have this time gone for a guy who has made a career out of low-budget b-movies that have big cult followings but small box office returns. James Gunn is either best known for bonkers genre flicks like Slither or Super or for marrying (and then divorcing) Pam from the Office but he was never, by any understanding of the term, a "safe bet".

Nor, for that matter, was casting Chris Pratt as the film's lead. All of us Parks and Recreation fans already knew what a likable and seriously funny comedic actor Pratt is but who ever would have seen him as the next Harrison Ford? And yet here we are. Similarly, aside for Zoe Saldana - who has made a decent name for herself in genre cinema - the rest of the cast is filled up with character actors (Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, John C Reilly) and British TV talent (Karen Gillen, Peter Serofinowicz) while relegating its biggest names, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper, to merely providing the voices of the film's two weirdest characters: a talking cybernetic space raccoon and a walking, occasionally talking tree.

And yet, the resulting film has paid off these risks in spades. Forget the film's incredible performance at the box office, Guardians of the Galaxy is simply a top notch space adventure that may not be the best of this year's surprisingly great smorgasbord of summer blockbusters but it's arguably the most purely entertaining. And, for all of its space operatic action, it's almost definitely the year's funniest film so far.

While the film does hue just a bit too close to the Marvel formula for comfort - most especially in its by now far too familiar final act - the secret to its success is how much it's allowed to be its own thing. The plot itself is drawn from both the Abnett and Lanning comics (the Guardians of the Galaxy is quite an old Marvel property but the film is based almost entirely on the latest incarnation that was established by that particular dynamic British duo) and from following in the footsteps of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but everything else about it feels almost entirely like un film de James Gunn.  

I haven't read much of Abnett and Lannings Guardians comics but the characters largely feel spot-on here, though are all given that quirky James Gunn twist. The humour, in particular, is very pronounced and very singular, as Gunn constantly plays with our expectations and all the typical genre trappings that come with so well-worn a genre as the space opera. It is, however, his work on the characters that really make the film pop. The plot itself is pretty straightforward as our ragtag team of outlaws are the universe's only hope as the only things that stand between a despotic religious radical and one of the galaxy's most powerful weapons.

Peter Quill/ Starlord (Pratt), for example, is an earthman who was abducted by aliens as a kid but Gunn really plays up the idea of a guy who is caught in both a particular time (the '80s) and in a particular mental space (adolescence) - while, of course, using his background as an excuse to give the film a pop soundtrack that stands in stark contrast to the sort of classical - or classically derived - music that is usually used to score epic scifi flicks. And, hey, if you can't get John Williams, you might as well go for the Runaways and Blue Suede.  

As the expected scene-stealers Groot (Diesel) and Rocket (Cooper) are both the film's two most out-there characters and, weirdly, its most sympathetic. While the latter is clearly scarred by traumatic events in his past, the former gets the films big Iron Giant "Superman" moment and the most clearly defined character arc. Not bad for an anthropomorphic, homicidal comedy double-act.

Perhaps best of all though - and unquestionably most surprising of all - is Drax, played brilliantly by former wrestler Dave Bautista. That he could handle the action scenes was hardly surprising but who would ever have expected him be able to portray an emotionally complex character, let alone an emotionally complex character who also happens to have some of the best lines in the film. But of course, the decision to make Drax a very serious, vengeance-seeking warrior who also has no ability whatsoever to grasp metaphor or allegory, is also just a huge part of what makes these characters so appealing.

On the less positive side though, the film doesn't make quite such good use of its female characters as Saldana's Gamora might be the moral heart of the group but she's also way less fun than the boys. Worse, however, is Karen Gillen as the film's major hench-villain, Nebula, who really has very little to work with - even with the sibling rivalry that exists between her and Gamora. But, of course, this may be less of a female thing and more of a villain thing as the baddies in this film are both thinly drawn and severely lacking in personality, as Lee Pace's Ronan The Destroyer is a formidable but quickly forgettable foe. Only Michael Rooker's Yondu makes much of an impression but he's far from the baddest bad guy in the Marvel Universe.

Still, with this many great characters, established in so little time (The Avengers needed four other film to set its characters and its world up, after all) it's easy to forgive the few that underwhelm - especially when the story takes place in such imaginatively bonkers settings and makes such brilliant use of sight gags. I don't want to spoil things but look out especially for the film's hilarious opening credits sequence (you heard me, opening credits! In this day and age!) and a set piece that takes place in a rather unique celestial body. And then, of course, there is also the small matter of the highly publicized prison-break sequence, which is even more fun than all the promotional material made it out to be.  

All in all, though its pretty obvious missteps mean that I can't rate Guardians of the Galaxy quite as high as I want to, it's still yet another A-class Marvel film that more than makes up for any lack of depth or narrative over-familiarity with sheer entertainment value. It's thrilling, its constantly surprising and it's laugh-out-loud funny and provides better entertainment bang for your buck than any other film this year.

It also, as it so happens, provides us with the perfect guy to take over from Joss Whedon whenever he leaves the Avengers franchise. Gunn doesn't have Whedon's depth (though that particular strength wasn't all that present in The Avengers anyway) but he certainly has a similar wit, style and willingness to break conventions that would make him the perfect successor. Hopefully that won't be for a while yet and we'll get to enjoy the big screen adventures of both The Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. And I know the whole comic book movie thing is pretty well established by now, but I still can't quite believe I got to write that sentence!

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